Desert development raises dust

  'Tis the season to be coughing: November and December are the worst months for Phoenix's air quality, says David Feuerherd of the American Lung Association of Arizona. "Picture somebody ... shoveling dirt down your bronchial tubes."

Officials in the Valley of the Sun say the area's familiar brown cloud is caused by "fugitive dust," brought on in large part by the area's continuing development boom: Phoenix is now the nation's fastest-growing large city. Surrounding Maricopa County has a 23 percent growth rate, with more than 700,000 people moving there since 1990.

Phoenix's air quality is well below national health standards, and the cases of valley fever in Arizona has doubled in recent years. An illness whose symptoms can range from fatigue to fungus in bones or the lining of the brain, valley fever is a pathogen that lives quietly in the ground until soil is disturbed. The cost of hospitalizing valley fever patients has been estimated at more than $20 million.

Since an EPA crackdown last year, the city has paved 70 miles of roads and spent more than $12 million in dust-abatement programs. Yet last month, the EPA said it would impose limits on new or expanding businesses by March unless the area could come up with a workable plan to fight particulate pollution.

Phoenix has both enthusiastically embraced development and abhorred its consequences. As part of its efforts to deal with the impacts of development, in November 1998, Arizona voters passed Proposition 303, calling for $220 million to be set aside over 11 years to purchase land to protect it from development.

Dust "is not inevitable with the desert," Feuerherd says. "It's only when you go in and start building stucco houses with orange tile roofs that you begin to see this stuff."

*Karen Mockler